Putting Together a Competition Collection: Top Tips from our Previous Winners

With less than two months to go until the deadlines for our 2022 International Book & Pamphlet Competition and New Poets Prize, our previous winners have put together some tips on crafting a winning collection…

Selecting your poems

“It’s strange how just changing a few poems in a sequence, or starting from a different place, can really alter the sense of the collection as a whole.”

  • Like many others, I print everything out and lay the poems out on the floor or a big table and rearrange them over a period of days, weeks, sometimes months, looking at how the poems rub up against each other, how themes or narratives develop.
  • I also like to make sure that there is some variety in form (unless there’s a reason for it).

– Hilary Menos, winner of the International Book & Pamphlet Competition 2019

  • Choose your best poems and then try to see what, if anything, connects them: it might be a particular set of preoccupations, or an idiosyncratic way of seeing the world, or a certain tone of voice.
  • Put aside the poems that don’t fit, or find a place for them that makes the most of their difference/uniqueness.

– Lesley Saunders, winner of the International Book & Pamphlet Competition 2017

Ordering your poems

“Read the whole set aloud. Is it convincing? Try it out on a good poet-friend or colleague.”

  • It is never easy to order a collection of poems. One thing I found useful was trying to group poems together in twos or threes that really seem to gel together, and then look at how the mood changed between these groups. 
  • For me the trick was spotting where they overlapped, so there wasn’t too much jarring as you moved from one poem to the next.

– Emma Simon, winner of the International Book & Pamphlet Competition 2019

  • Treat each poem in the pamphlet as if it’s a line or stanza in a poem. Each one should flow naturally into the next. Pay particular attention to the opening poem and the final one.
  • Once you’ve decided on a provisional order, read (at least) the last couple of lines of one and then the first couple of lines of the next, over and over again, listening to the ‘conversation’ between them. You may well be surprised by the results. Be prepared to shuffle and re-shuffle.

– Josephine Abbott, winner of the 2017 International Book & Pamphlet Competition

  • During the editing process, I learnt that in Italian, the word ‘stanza’ can translate to ‘room.’ Thinking of the poems as rooms helped a lot. Are you putting a room with no furniture next to a cramped room? Are two very large rooms joined together? Is this room warm or cold? Inviting or mysterious?

– Karl Knights, winner of the New Poets Prize 2021

  • Lay all these possible poems out on the floor and shuffle them around so that, when you read them, one poem makes a connection with the next, thematically or with an echo of a phrase.
  • Try out different arrangements and make sure the pamphlet will open and close with strong poems.

– Lesley Saunders

Choosing a collection title

“Don’t be too quick to decide on a title: an unusual, intriguing and (importantly) relevant one may suggest itself as a result of this process.”

  • If you want to feel like a proper writer, I recommend sitting on the carpet with print-outs of your poems scattered near and far. By putting them into different piles and various orders I found that I was starting to see potential themes and connections I hadn’t teased out before. In fact it was only by doing this that I realised how many poems touched on the idea of fate or chance, and this helped me come up with the title of my pamphlet, The Odds.

– Emma Simon

  • The title should; (a) tempt the reader into the pamphlet (b) offer a small clue to understanding the poems in it and (c) not give too much away, spoiling the punchline.

– Josephine Abbott

  • Find the striking phrase in one of the poems (not necessarily a poem-title) that resonates with the general mood or pre-occupations of the set. This could be your collection title.

– Lesley Saunders

Time and space

“After a while I get page-blind and have to put it all away for a few weeks.”

  • It’s a process of sifting, combing, allowing things to rise to the top, and recognising eventually that one poem is repeat business, another poem does not fit, or that the poem I wrote to fill a specific gap or bridge the distance between two others is simply not working, however much I want it to.

– Hilary Menos

  • I think the greatest asset you have in working on a collection is time. When I work on poems, I often do a draft, and then when I think it’s ‘done’ I put it away for a while and come back to it, and working on the collection was no different in that sense. I started working on my competition entry quite far in advance, so I could comfortably put the book down for a while, return to it, put it down again.

– Karl Knights

Go for it

“I genuinely don’t think I ever dreamed of winning…”

  • Right up until the closing date, I was dithering about whether or not I was going to enter: I hadn’t been writing poetry for very long, and I seriously doubted that my work was up to the standard of such a prestigious competition. It just goes to show that it is always worth entering, because you just never know.

– Rosalind Easton, winner of the 2020 International Book & Pamphlet Competition

  • An exasperated friend and colleague remarked that, to enter a competition implies the possibility of winning it, and that I should stop whining about my insecurities and deal with it.

– Jill Penny, winner of the 2020 International Book & Pamphlet Competition

Don’t give up!

“If I could go back, I would tell myself that books don’t happen by chance or divine intervention, you have to work.”

  • Lighten up! Even if this entry of yours isn’t successful, you’ll have learnt a lot from the process. And DO keep trying, as different judges enjoy different kinds of work. (I didn’t get anywhere with the Poetry Business competition until my fourth attempt!)

– Lesley Saunders

  • So, my winning entry was my eighth entry to the prize! This pamphlet is standing on top of seven failures. The difference between this entry and the others is quite simple: I worked a hell of a lot more.

– Karl Knights

“I’d urge anyone who’s thinking about entering this competition to do so – it’s been a fantastic experience. You can’t win if you don’t enter, so my advice is to give it a go.”

– Emma Simon, winner of the International Book & Pamphlet Competition 2019